Sheffield United: Oliver Norwood on identity, tactics, his true motivation and sharing a joke with a team mate

Midway through most games, regardless of whether Sheffield United are winning, losing or drawing, Oliver Norwood and John Egan like to share a joke.

Oliver Norwood: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Oliver Norwood: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

The subject never changes. There isn't really a punchline. But the fact it still amuses them explains why, despite rarely deviating from a tried and tested formula, Chris Wilder's tactics are so difficult for opponents to fathom out.

"There's usually a moment when John and I stand there, look at each other, and wonder where the rest of the lads have gone," Norwood laughs, trying and failing to analyse United's strategy in words a layman might understand. "There we are, hanging around in our own half, and we're completely on our own. Other than Hendo in goal of course."

John Egan: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Norwood and his team mate are perhaps the most pivotal figures in their manager's pioneering system because, as the Northern Ireland international admits, they do what every other outfield player does not. While Egan's fellow centre-halves Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell bomb forward at every opportunity, joining wing-backs Enda Stevens and George Baldock in attack, they frequently find themselves keeping goalkeeper Dean Henderson company back in United's own half.

It is an approach which sounds chaotic and, ahead of Saturday's visit to Swansea City, is likely to have caused Wilder's counterpart Graham Potter plenty of sleepless nights. But with United travelling to Wales second in the Championship, there is clearly method behind this apparent footballing madness.

"The amount of people we get up the pitch, it's different," Norwood continues, as he attempts to make sense of a process which still confuses him. "Even before I came here, I was watching United on television and then ringing Knilly (Wilder's assistant Alan Knill) and asking how they did it. There's times when I'm still not sure now.

"But, there is a structure to it, it's not just everyone go and do what they want. Teams now are still trying to work out how they are going to stop us. 

Dean Henderson: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

"We cause different teams different problems. The more options you have on the ball the better. We work hard at it on the training pitch."

The methods Wilder employs have not only delivered results but, in an era where most coaches follow the lead of others, allowed United to stand out from the rest of the pack. City understand the importance of identity after enjoying great success under Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers before being relegated from the Premier League when others, including Francesco Guidolin and Bob Bradley, abandoned the passing principles instilled by their predecessors. Potter, appointed after impressing with Swedish club Östersund, has been handed the challenge of bringing them back and, like Wilder, boasts his own distinct style with players at the Jämtkraft Arena encouraged to take part in music and theatre productions to take them out of their comfort zone. 

Sitting on a chair inside the Steelphalt Academy's media suite, Norwood can empathise with his counterparts at the Liberty Stadium. But acknowledging that mastering Wilder's techniques requires considerable effort and patience, the former Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder is now enjoying reaping the rewards.

"I think a lot of teams will be more fearful of us than we are of them," he says. "Looking at our group, at the rest of the division, I'd back the lads going into every single game. There is nothing to fear. We have seen the league, played a couple of teams twice, and I genuinely don't think there's anything to be scared of."

City beat United on the opening day of the season during Potter's first match in charge, when goals from Oliver McBurnie and Yan Dhanda cancelled-out Baldock's opener.  Norwood, whose ability to perform the 'quarterback' role has enhanced the effectiveness of Wilder's gameplan, was still employed by Albion at the time but after his loan became permanent earlier this month, the 27-year-old is convinced United are now a much tougher proposition. Both in terms of their footballing intelligence and, as they chase promotion, their psychological strength too.

"I have played football since I was six years old. It's nothing new to us. The only difference is different grounds, different noises from the stands, it's still the same bit of grass, white lines and ball.

"Whether you are motivated by money, success or medals, when you look back at the end of your career you want to be able to say to your kids 'I was part of that Sheffield United team who got promoted.' We all have the same goal."